Drummer and composer Eric Du’sean Harland, 34, was all of 17 when Wynton Marsalis heard him perform and encouraged him to study in New York City. After graduating from the Manhattan School of Music, and pursuing ministerial studies at Houston Baptist University, Harland launched a drumming career that has now spawned over 80 recordings with the likes of Terence Blanchard, Stefon Harris, McCoy Tynor, Charles Lloyd, Dave Holland, and Ravi Coltrane. Currently active in four major ensembles, he has received 1st Place in the last three DownBeat “Rising Star Drums” polls.

In conjunction with Harland’s work in the SFJazz Collective – a partnership that also includes Miguel Zenón on alto saxophone, Mark Turner on tenor saxophone, Avishai Cohen on trumpet, Robin Eubanks on trombone, Stefon Harris on vibraphone, Edward Simon on piano, and Matt Penman on bass – we spoke by phone toward the end of February. At the same time that Governor of Wisconsin was attempting to strip collective bargaining rights from union employees, governments in the Arab world were crumbling, cities and states were in financial crisis, and same-sex marriage and abortion rights were again receiving national attention, we discussed Harland’s work with jazz and its importance in the grand scheme of things.

An Interview with Jass Drummer Eric Harland

Jason Victor Serinus: I don’t think of Stevie Wonder as a jazz artist. Why did the SFJazz pick his music to feature and record in 2011, and what are you doing with it?

Eric Harland: We picked Stevie Wonder- it wasn’t a group effort, but it became a group decision – because most of us have a strong relationship with his music. We grew up either in the South or even in the North. His music has always been a part of America, especially the black side of America.

A lot of us could strongly relate to it. When we grew up, our parents or friends were listening to it. It spoke to at least half the collective.

We sat around and talked about how we felt about it, because it was going to be a big change from Coltrane, McCoy, Wayne, Herbie, and Ornette Coleman. But when we really thought about it, we thought it would be a nice idea for people to see really see what the collective could do with music that pretty much reaches the majority of the public. In a sense, everyone is familiar with his music. So I think doing it would show a strong take on the arrangement capabilities of the collective members, and also give us something to really have fun with.

JVS: How old are you?

EH: 34.

JVS: Oh, I knew you were a baby. I grew up with Stevie Wonder, and I love his music.

EH: Man, he has such a legacy of music in everything that he’s done. To me personally, it just seemed like the right step to make.

A lot of people, especially nowadays, have lost the whole concept of jazz, the history of it and where its come from and the feeling and the meaning of it. They started really checking out R&B and soul. I think one way to encourage and influence people to come back to jazz is to show that it’s all still the same. Yes, R&B had a lot of words that could draw you in, and a strong groove. But those are the same things that jazz has had for a long period of time. We’ve gone through an era of being more experimental, and doing a lot of things trying to expound on the freedom and deliveries of jazz music. But at the same time, it still all comes from the same place.

JVS: What do you mean “from the same place”?

EH: It comes from the heart, on a spiritual basis. And within the world, it comes from gospel music. It comes from the hymns and the spirituals that were sung by the slaves back in the day. It all comes from the same source. The Blues comes from the hymns, and jazz was based off the blues. It’s been a long legacy of this music helping people get through bad times.

It makes sense that people were drawn to that music back then, just like they’re still drawn to R&B and soul music now. It’s just that jazz has changed so much. In the process, we might have lost a few people. It’s okay, but at the same time, most of us complain that a lot of people aren’t at the shows. It’s not that we’re looking to cater to getting more people to the shows; it’s just that sometime a lack of people at shows shows a lack of awareness at what’s really happening onstage.

It’s a lack of not reaching out and really touching the people. A lot of it has to do with not having a true avenue to reach the people.

JVS: What are all the ensembles you’re involved in?

EH: Besides SFJazz Collective and the Charles Lloyd Quartet, I’m in James Farm (Joshua Redmond, Matt Penman, Aaron Parks and myself), the Overtone Quartet (Dave Holland, Chris Potter, Jason Moran, and myself), and my own quintet (with Taylor Eigsti, Julian Iage, Harish Raghavan, and Walter Smith, III).

JVS: Do you find your style changing in these different groups? Do you adopt different personalities?

EH: Totally. I just try to be in the moment. I try to utilize the influences from other groups and from all of my experiences. Playing with different personnel and playing different music always brings out something different anyway.

The funny thing is I used to hate it. All I wanted to be was in group – one band that was super-famous and we could just tour the world and stay together and work on music, make enough to make a living. That was my dream. It was kinda funny that I ended up playing in so many different ensembles.

My goal is to make every group sound like a band. That’s always been my dream –to always have a band sound where everybody thinks and breathes as one. So I’m always from the drum chair trying to do what I can to create that, or introduce that – which ever role I have to take. That’s one of my main goals.

I do it by trying to show the guys I’m playing with that I fully believe in what they’re playing and support what they’re playing. The beauty is, once you do that with people, they feel encouraged. Then you kind of win them to the point that they listen back to the things you’re introducing them to, because they truly believe that you honor what it is that they’re going for.

Sometimes you have the option of just going in there and playing your thing and not listening to the people that you’re playing with. I never wanted to be that kind of person, because I always felt the best basketball teams were the ones that knew how to work together and move the ball around, so that five members were like one, a complete unit of thought. That’s how I like to be when I’m in a band. I try to find the best role that’s going to be mostly supportive, and help everybody to get to the same point.

JVS: What is special to you about the sound or experience of the SFJazz Collective?

EH: The thing about the collective that is so interesting to me is that with have eight members, it still has the feel of being in a quartet. I think it’s because we have a lot of history playing together, and we’re very sensitive to each other. We all come in with the same goal of really trying to be a band, and see what really works well together. That’s one of the strongest things about this group. The writing is strong, but we’ve all matured to the point where we realize that it’s not so much about what we bring in as a composition; it’s really more about how we sound as unit.

A sound like that is very hard to find when you have that many well known and well-established musicians in the same band and it’s a kind of all-star group. Usually every person is trying to reach out and prove themselves every time – it’s that moment to prove that I’m a great player. You find it in jazz a lot sometimes. I think it comes from jazz music not having that much encouragement these days. You can play popular music and you can make a lot of money. You play jazz and you can make somewhat of a good living if you’re working all year long, but it’s just not the same. And most up and coming jazz musicians feel that they have to always show the best attributes of themselves all the time, instead of just really being a musician and allowing themselves to be true artists on the adventure of what’s happening in the moment.

People always have to be sensitive to what’s real.

An Interview with Jass Drummer Eric Harland

What’s so beautiful about the collective is that we’ve gone beyond the dimension of trying to prove that we are these great writers and orchestral writers to write for an eight-piece ensemble and wow the people with all this music. I think we’re all really getting older and settling down into realizing that we’ve all written a lot of music; now is really time to just play and invite people into this space that we have as artists and musicians. Put our ego aside and just have a good time and make every performance like it’s a living room. Don’t push people away by trying to impress them with so much stuff.

We want people to feel encouraged, especially in this day and time with the government and world. You see so many people crying out for a sense of freedom and, even more, a sense of equality. A sense of realization that I’m just as important as the next person; why do I have to be made to feel like I’m not? And I think jazz music is one of the best forms of music for that, because it constantly feels that. Why am I not on the same level or Sting or Jackson or Usher? We’re constantly asking ourselves that same question because we feel that what we do is equally important.

Then you take a step back and realize that maybe that life is not about that. We have to continue to nurture the truth that’s within all of us that we’re all one, and that everything is set-up in this world belongs to Caesar, like in old Roman times. You have to render to Caesar what’s Caesar, and to God what’s God. As long as we can stay true to what’s endearing in our hearts, it has to be pushing the truth forward more and more every time we play. That’s what I try to believe every time I play.

JVS: What a contrast with the Las Vegas glitz of the recent Grammy broadcast.

EH: Yeah, it’s the financial aspect of it. We think that a better living requires better finances. It’s not true. It’s not the money per se, it’s just the thing that money buys.

I think everyone has good taste. There are people who just don’t care, but the majority of us know good food and a good living situation when we see it. The problem is that it all costs way too much. That enables one social class to be kept under, and another social class to reap the benefits because they have the money. I just can’t lie. It’s not fair.

JVS: I spoke to Charles Lloyd a few months back. It’s really a joy to talk about music this way.

EH: Oh man, he’s so great, man, and he has a lot of stuff together. He has the divine stuff together, and he has the political stuff together as well. I’m so fortunate to be around a person of his character. He’s like a mentor to me, and really believing in me. He saw me when I was really young – you think I’m a young’un now? – probably around 10 years ago. He really felt the connection, and wanted me to go on a journey with him. I’ve been grateful ever since, because he’s showed me so much.

The thing is, I feel sometimes in a vast world full of people who are reaching for a lot of things, it’s so easy to lose focus. It’s nice to be around people that share similar focus. They’re people you treasure.

I’m speaking totally East Coast, because in the West, there seem to be a majority of people who have an outward perspective of trying to better the planet and bettering each other and think about each other in a more optimistic way. I think California has always been the trend-setter in consciousness. On the East Coast, everyone is so deep into the work ethic. Oh, I gotta keep workin’, and do more and more, I haven’t enjoyed enough life, I gotta keep burnin’ the midnight oil. I’m always encouraged when I get out to the Bay and experience the sun.

JVS: Are you in New York?

EH: Now I’m in Pennsylvania. I moved out of New York when me and my wife had two beautiful kids. We moved when my son was first born in 2001. It was great, it was perfect for what we need as a family. It’s still close to New York, but at the same time it’s a little bit further away so you can get that kind of rural climate and social awareness being out in the country and connecting with nature.

I’m still very much a New Yorker at heart. I grew up here and I love New York. This year, I sublet an apartment, because I had so many gigs – the Vanguard, Rose Theatre in Lincoln Center with Charles – it was phenomenal to be back in the city.

I think what mostly made it phenomenal was the new perspective I had for the city. When I lived here before, I had fun, but at the same time it was mostly this grind of trying to prove your point and try to make it and proving what you could do. But now, I can enjoy the beautiful thing that there’s just a lot of people. I never used to think of that as a beautiful thing. But when you start thinking of everyone as one, you realize that even though there are a lot of people, we’re all the same, just with different experiences.

For me, it feeds my heart to wonder what people have been going through. We can share experiences and try to have a more optimistic view about everything instead of just being negative.

JVS: Were you born in New York?

EH: I come from Houston, but I came to New York when I was 16. I was up in Harlem, because I went to college at Manhattan School of Music when I was 17. I stayed there for three years, then ended up moving to Brooklyn. I kinda found my way. Most of my teenage years were in New York, alone, while most of my family was in Houston. I was growing up by myself experiencing a big city and a vast life. Vast and very fast. The momentum of the people, the high pace. The chaos aspect of it. It’s different now.

JVS: This has been so great. Thank you so much.